Throughout my pregnancy I hadn’t given much consideration as to how I would feed my baby. I knew what the options were: breastfeeding and bottle feeding with formula. I assumed that I would naturally breastfeed.
I assumed because you know, “breast is best”.
It’s what ‘they’ say. They say it in the antenatal classes, your midwife will advocate for it, and there is such a huge societal emphasis on its benefits.
And to an extent I will agree with it. Breastfeeding is incredibly beneficial. It is also convenient (like having milk on tap) as well as being free. Furthermore, the properties of breastmilk are specifically designed to meet your babies needs at that time and are different during each feed which is actually pretty incredible.
So I assumed that I would naturally breastfeed. In my birth wishes I had written that I would like to breastfeed but said that I wouldn’t put too much pressure on myself, and would be ok if it didn’t work out.
How wrong was I?
There was pressure, and I definitely was not ok when it didn’t work out.
The early days of breastfeeding
After the birth of our daughter the midwife asked if I wanted to put her on me to feed. I agreed as she was screaming a lot and clearly hungry.
She appeared to latch instantly, but it turns out she had not latched and wasn’t sucking properly. We spent some time in the delivery room going through some positions and techniques, and even tried to hand express some colostrum (the early milk) into her.
In the end before we left to be transfered to the post natal ward I mentioned to our midwife we had a bottle of ready made formula in our bag and so we agreed to syringe feed our girl some of this as she was so hungry. We then agreed to try again with breastfeeding on the ward later.
And tried we did, but to no avail.
On the ward I was shown how to hand express colostrum into a syringe, and we used this to feed her. However I was not getting anywhere near the amount needed for her to be satisfied, so constantly had a very hungry and upset little baby.
We were then told that our baby had a tongue tie and this may be causing the issue with the latch. However even after being cut the next day we still had similar issues with feeding.
The first night on the ward myself ended up being one of the worst nights of my journey with our newborn.
I had an incredibly hungry baby and felt like a total failure that I couldn’t provide her what she needed.
Throughout the night I met several midwives, breastfeeding counsellors and support workers. What was difficult about this was that they were all giving advice which was useful but all slightly different. I tried out all the postions and even nipple sheilds, but nothing worked.
During the night I had a support worker tell me that it would be ok to give formula and then return to breastfeeding later on as babies who are in special care sometimes have formula and their mums go on to breastfeed. On the otherhand however I had a midwife tell me categorically not to introduce formula or a bottle if I was planning on trying to breastfeed.
I was so torn and it was difficult as I had no sleep in 24 hours, had a screaming baby in my ear and as my husband was unable to stay on the ward overnight, I wasn’t able to talk it through with him and agree on what we felt was best.
In the end, at 4am I let a support worker syringe feed her formula. This little feed pacified her for a short time. However, come the morning we were still in the same place.
My husband returned and helped me again to hand express (I found it difficult to do myself) and we fed her these tiny amounts, but it still wasn’t enough.
On top of that, I continued to get no rest on the ward. During the day we had several people come in to check on us and all I heard was:
“How’s she feeding?”
“How are you feeding?”
“How’s feeding going?”
It was exhausting.
In the end, we bottle fed our baby some formula and she instantly settled.
Afterwards, I lay on the bed with my husband and cried. It was probably all the hormones and exhaustion but I felt like such a failure and ultimately felt rejected by my baby.
After formula feeding we were allowed to return home, but it took the ward until 10pm to discharge us. They suggested I stay another night but I declined. I couldn’t face another night of not sleeping on a ward. I just wanted to be in the comfort of my own home. So home we went.
Breastfeeding at home
During the first week at home, blearly eyed and several times per day I tried to help my girl to latch on. I had midwives come to see us and again show us different positions. She would suckle but not significantly to have a proper feed.
So we again continued to use formula to feed. Then on day 3 my milk arrived and I tried again as I knew that it would be more free flowing and in theory easier for her to get at.
I decided to use a nipple shield at this point as it was a similar style to a bottle teat and would help her learn to feed.
I did get there with this method but but she was on and off feeding for hours at a time, which of course is normal. However there were times that because it wasn’t getting to her as fast as from a bottle, she would become so stressed by it all. Screaming, arching her back and bashing her head and arms on my chest.
It was heartbreaking.
So on day 4 I started to manually express my milk with a breast pump to feed. I was so surprised by the amounts I could get in just 15 minutes (usually 120ml).
After this point I decided to primarlily express feeds and use a bottle to feed my baby.
I did try to offer her to feed from me every now and again, but not as much as I probably should have for it to be truly established.
So I then fell into the unknown world of exclusively expressing.
In the UK, there does not appear to be much support or advice on this method of feeding, but it is very common in the USA. Often, mothers express alongside directly breastfeeding to relive themselves, or much later on when they go back to work or if they want their partners to help with feeding.
A lot of the time throughout my journey with expressing many health professionals would be surprised at this feeding option, but at the time I was getting massive amounts and had a stockpile in the freezer so I felt that I was winning.
Then on day 10 the midwife that discharged us said that I should be expressing every 3 hours in order to keep my milk supply up. She then said “otherwise your milk may dry up.” This was all I heard at that point and I was so desperate to keep giving my baby my milk. This then got me so stressed and I felt so tied and like I was clock watching before the next time I needed to express. I also felt that I was missing out in that much needed early bonding with my baby. My husband would be sat with her, comforting her whilst I was attached to a breast pump trying to get enough milk for the next feed.
I’ll always remember the night before my birthday. We had a full on day out and I had 2 hours sleep the night before. We got home and I just wanted to sleep, but I knew I needed to express as it had been several hours. So off I went to our room. I sat there expressing alone and was in tears.
I was thinking how different things were since my previous birthday. I mourned for my free life. The expressing felt like it was taking its toil on me, and felt very much like a chore rather than a labour of love.
However I just hated the thought of using formula again. As directly breastfeeding didn’t work for us, I wanted this to work.
I did get end up getting through this stage and it has now turned into a labour of love. One which I am happy to continue with.
I am now 8 weeks into this journey of exclusively expressing. It hasn’t been easy, but I am certainly getting into a better rhythm with it, and pretty pleased with myself that I have managed this far.
The pros and cons of exclusively expressing:
Exclusively expressing is a very different way of feeding and has many pros and cons to it.
I won’t lie, it is much more difficult than I realised it would be. There have been many days where I have ended up in tears about it. Constantly worrying if I had enough suppy in the fridge or worrying that the type of milk I was producing was good enough for my baby in order for her to grow (as she is still such a little dot). Furthermore, by feeding expressed breastmilk you are effectivley feeding twice as you need to take the time to express, then later feed.
It also has the added task of having to constantly sterilise all the bottles and parts of your breast pump. So in all honesty, it is a heck of a lot of work.
However for some it can be the best of both worlds. You are giving your baby your own milk and you have the benefit of knowing how much they are getting as well as having your partner being able to help feed.
Tips for expressing breastmilk
– Get comfy: my standard time for expressing will be anywhere between 20 minutes and one hour, so being somewhere with my warm blanket and plenty of cushions is ideal.
– Distract yourself: I have found watching TV or being on the phone to someone helps pass the time and makes it feel like I am achieving something else at the same time.
– Get a good pump: I have used both manual and electric, but oddly I find It easier and quicker to express with a manual pump.
– Use a Haaka: This is a silicone breast pump and has been a lifesaver for me. It collects milk from the other breast when feeding or expressing from the other.
Often I have been able to get 50ml just from the Haaka which is incredible.
– Drink plenty of water: Breastfeeding is thirsty work. You should aim to drink 3 litres per day when breastfeeding or expressing. I often have several strategically placed bottles around the house and will have my expressing box that I take upstairs at night with water and snacks to get me throught the session.
– Eat well: When breastfeeding or expressing breastmilk it is important to eat well and include a range of fruits, vegetables and protien in your diet, as well as limit caffiene. I switched to decaff tea when I was pregnant but will now occassionally have one cup of caffienated tea per day.
– Don’t be too strict on the timings of expressing: Although all the advice from professionals will be to express every 3-4 hours. I have gone around 6-7 before and still get good amounts. I also find that if I don’t have time to express until empty, its better to express for 15 mins so that you’re still stimulating your body to produce more.
The breastfeeding guilt
Looking back I always wondered whether I gave up on directly breastfeeding too soon. Establishing breastfeeding can take weeks initially and I stopped after just a few days. I had so much guilt over this decision for quite some time. I had no idea how much emotion would be tied up with feeding my baby, and how badly I wanted it to work.
It was so difficult initially even with feeding expressed breastmilk. Watching other people feed my baby, when it felt like it should just be me was so difficult, and I did and still do feel that I have to justify my decision to others. When I am sat there with a bottle in my hand that she is having my milk. However, my baby is still getting all the goodness and is thriving.
I am now of the opinion that fed is best and I will continue to feed my baby expressed milk until I can no longer do it.